I am not for one minute suggesting we not put any trust in “experts.” But how often do public figures use experts like a drunk uses a lamppost – more for support than illumination!
This is surely the case with Sen. Marco Rubio, a contender for the Republican nominee in the upcoming presidential elections when he referred to “experts” as the source of his claim that climate change is natural, and not caused by carbon emissions. On being pressed all he could cite were unnamed “economists and scientists.” (See Marco Rubio Refuses To Name Any Of His Advisers On Climate Change).
Most of us know by now that the overwhelming number of experts on climate change would not agree with Rubio’s claim. He is simply hiding behind the word “experts” – trying to give unwarranted credibility to his claim. A false credibility considering he either cannot name those “experts” or refuses to name them because he realises they are not representative.
I have seen a similar situation in New Zealand where councillors and mayors have justified their decisions on community water fluoridation (CWF) by claiming they are informed by experts. For example, a Hamilton councillor who discounted any information I provided him on the scientific understanding of CWF by claiming that the “experts” disagreed and this had been obvious from submissions to his council. The old trick of pretending there are “two sides” or that there is a 50:50 disagreement. A convenient way of ignoring the real evidence and going with one’s own bias.
A particularly egregious example of this “hiding behind experts” was the way Whakatane District Council mayor Tony Bonne justified the council’s decision to ignore a recent referendum which had supported CWF. He claimed:
“We listened to the experts. The referendum was a guide from the feeling of people who did vote, so we’ve made a decision.”
I wrote about this in my article “Fluoridation: Whakatane District Council makes the Hamilton mistake.” But since then I decided I would get the word from the horse’s mouth. Who were these experts that mayor Bonne claimed to have informed the council. My Official Information request asking for the names, qualifications and institutional connections of the “experts” Bonne referred to elicited the following answer”
“The names of those who spoke to the Council are:”
In support of CWF:
- Dr Neil de Wet, Toi Te Ora Public Health;
- John Twaddle, East Bay Dentists;
- Mary Byrne, Fluoride Free New Zealand
- Jon Burness
“The qualifications and occupations are known for two of the presenters Dr Neil de Wet and John Twaddle who advised the meeting and these were recorded in the minutes.”
So – the only real “experts” the council heard from were the two supporting CWF – yet the mayor gave the impression that the two opposing CWF were also
Wouldn’t he have been more honest to state that he was voting according to his own convictions or bias (he was the councillor who moved the resolution to remove fluoride). And that he actually ignored the advice of the real experts on this issue – because it didn’t conform to his bias?
There is an argument for trusting real experts
None of us are expert on all issues. this means that we often must rely on real experts when deciding on an action like voting, medical treatment, car repairs, etc. I say “often” because in fact there may be issues in which we have individual expertise and we can in all conscience make up our own minds according to the evidence and act accordingly.
But there is nothing wrong with acknowledging our lack of knowledge or understanding on issues where we are required to make decisions. The wisest thing in such situations is to take counsel, seek and follow expert advice. It is surely hubris not to do this – to stick with an ill-informed prejudice and ignore expert advice.
However, we should do this responsibly. We can check that the people who are advising us are true experts. Check out their training, qualifications and institutional accreditation. We should do this sensibly – recognising that there are qualifications and “qualifications,” institutions and “institutions.” The internet abounds with PhDs who are spouting rubbish – even if the PhDs have been honestly earned -(and many haven’t). And there are plenty of internet or shopfront “institutions” who are integral parts of this rubbish spouting.
Remember a fool and their money are soon parted.
We should rely on experts but should not be fooled by false “experts”.
Featured image: Flickr CC, Gage Skidmore.